• Blue Birds

    I was born just before the outbreak of the Second World War.  I spent my early years with my mother and young sister in our little state house in Hawera, while my father was “away at the war” in the Air Force.

    I grew up with an awareness, as I listened to the news bulletins from the BBC and the speeches of Winston Churchill, that the world – our world – was locked in a life and death struggle.  And, even in New Zealand, there was Vera Lynn.

    “The white cliffs of Dover” may have been a long way away, but there could be no doubting, in the words of the song, that sense of soaring hope – that belief that a better day would dawn.  Nothing more directly reminds me of the despair and longing that we felt in those days, that conviction and hope that it would – one day – all turn out all right in the end.

    The news this week that Dame Vera Lynn had died at the age of 103 brought it all back to me. I can only think that the Queen felt similarly about the songs of Vera Lynn when, in a broadcast to the nation a few weeks ago, designed to cheer people up in the midst of the coronavirus lockdown, she echoed another Vera Lynn song by saying that “We will meet again”. 

    Some of the British media have bemoaned what they describe as nostalgia and sentimentality, and an unhealthy preoccupation with the past, in the reaction to the news of Vera Lynn’s death.  But I welcome the reminder of that earlier crisis – one that was much more significant in innumerable ways than the current coronavirus pandemic; the struggle then was not against a virus, but against an armed and brutal enemy intent on destroying our civilisation and society, subjecting us to serfdom, and driven by a hateful ideology.

    That ideology embraced notions of racial supremacy, authoritarianism, violence and brutality.  It tried to use the force of arms across the whole world in order to establish itself.  It would have spelt the end of fellow-feeling, conciliation and, above all, kindness.  There would have been no going back, no looking forward to a release from servitude.  If that struggle had been lost, the world would have been a very different place; there would have been no freedom, no justice, no human rights, no democracy.

    Does any of that still matter today?  I think it does.  It is clearly desirable that younger generations should have some sense of what those who went before had to overcome, and should make a judgment as to whether what their forbears achieved is worth preserving and defending.  And if we are not alert to the dangers we averted, how can we be prepared to face them down again, if they should re-emerge?

    And how would we recognise them, if they were to rear their ugly heads again?  How would we understand that, even in our own societies, attitudes like these could again take hold?  How else are we to understand the reasons for the Black Lives Matter campaign springing up around the world?  How else to evaluate last year’s massacre at Christchurch mosques?

    If we are to be worthy of those who made such sacrifices last century to defeat fascism, we must be alert for any re-emergence, and also recognise the need for improvement.  We must learn to acknowledge that we are not perfect – not perfectly tolerant of others we think of as “different” and not perfectly ready to understand the slights and disadvantages that others in our midst are prone to suffer.

    And, sadly, although Vera Lynn promised that “Jimmy” “would sleep in his own little room again“, Jimmy today doesn’t always have “his own little room.”  

    We must constantly remind ourselves that, whatever our differences, we are all human and that, as Shakespeare asked, “do we not all bleed?”

    The blue birds (I’m not even sure what a “blue bird” is) did indeed fly again, as Vera Lynn promised, but not just for some of us – for all of us. 

    Bryan Gould

    23 June 2020